It’s been said that the degree of civilization of any society can be judged by entering its prisons. Today, as the United Nations General Assembly wraps up in New York City, a humanitarian crisis worthy of international intervention is unfolding on the other side of the East River. If foreign delegations wish to see the degree of our civilization, they need only take the Q100 bus to Rikers Island.
New York City’s main jail complex is one of the largest correctional facilities in the United States and long among the most dangerous. Conditions there have always been terrible. But this year, the situation deteriorated into a full-blown humanitarian crisis.
Twelve people held in custody at Rikers have died in 2021 thus far. In May, a court-appointed federal monitor found a “pervasive level of disorder and chaos,” with use of force by guards up 200 percent from four years ago. Last month, the same monitor filed an emergency letter about conditions deteriorating even further. On September 10, the chief medical officer at Rikers Island wrote a letter to the city council to blow the whistle on a “collapse in basic jail operations” and a “new and worsening emergency” that “threatens the health and well-being of everyone who works and resides in city jails.”
Three days later, I exercised my legal right as a state elected official to inspect local correctional facilities and visited Rikers Island along with twelve other lawmakers. I knew conditions were bad, but nothing prepared me for the level of abuse and neglect that I witnessed there.
I met men who had been stuck for days in the intake center, held in overcrowded cells and temporary pens without toilets, cut off from contact with their family or their attorney. I learned that, in some cases, families tried posting bail, but no one was bringing the detainee to their court appearances where they would be released. Many were there for tiny infractions, such as missing curfew on parole or getting into a fight at a barbecue. I met men with broken bones who were not being given medical treatment.
On the floor, there was garbage, cockroaches, human feces, and urine. Most toilets were broken, so men were given plastic bags to defecate in. Many reported only eating one meal a day — and often had to beg for it. Everyone was thirsty and had limited or no access to water. The temperature in some areas is sweltering in the humid summer heat, and there is no air conditioning.
In some cells that had been abandoned by corrections officers or left with unlocked doors, incarcerated people were answering the phones. Upon our visit, jail staff tried to hide prisoners in the gym and chapel, so cells appeared not to be as overcrowded as they were.
During the visit, we witnessed an attempted suicide. While one man was weeping and begging me to hug him through the bars, just around the corner another prisoner yelled “look at me!” to my colleagues Assembly member Jessica González-Rojas and State Senator Jessica Ramos. They turned to see him climb the bars of the cell with a noose around his neck and jump.
New York City is violating the fundamental constitutional rights of people detained at Rikers Island. It must be closed immediately. The vast majority of individuals held there are awaiting trial, often for minor and nonviolent offenses. They have not been convicted of any crime and are only incarcerated because they can’t afford bail.
The average stay at Rikers is longer than eighty days. Violence is rampant. In New York, the only legitimate legal reason to incarcerate people pretrial is to ensure their appearance before a judge, but jail staff cannot even fulfill this basic mandate. The Department of Correction has proven itself incapable of reform, defying court orders and directives from state and city oversight boards.
I spent days afterwards calling the families of men being held at Rikers to let them know how their loved ones were doing. A young man gave me the phone number of his mother — she hadn’t heard from him in weeks. When I spoke to her, she told me her son had contracted COVID-19 at Rikers, but his diagnosis had actually never been communicated to him. Instead, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had sent someone to her apartment to inform her. But she had no way to reach him. He suffers from sickle cell anemia, a serious comorbidity for COVID-19, but wasn’t getting any medical attention.
Thankfully, on September 17, Governor Kathy Hochul signed the “Less is More” act to reform New York’s unproductive and harmful system of incarcerating people on technical parole violations — a bill sponsored by New York City Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) member Phara Souffrant-Forrest in the state assembly, which we passed in June and which then governor Andrew Cuomo refused to enact at the time. While this step is necessary, it is not sufficient.
I plan to introduce legislation in the state assembly to place jails under the jurisdiction of the state Division of Human Rights (jails are tragically exempt from such jurisdiction under New York’s human rights law) and to strengthen the oversight powers of the state Commission of Correction. We also must advance a raft of state-level legislation, collectively known as the “Justice Roadmap,” that includes fair and timely parole, ending predatory court fees, and the “Transparency in Police Custody Act,” allowing family members and lawyers to locate people in police custody and ensure that their basic rights are upheld.
And Rikers must be shut down. Now.